Let’s be straight, Tokyo is a world class city that would take months to fully appreciate. For the tourist it is often overlooked as culture seekers head into central and western Japan on the hunt for temples, shrines and anything Shinto. The sprawling megalopolis is home to about 13 million people and has the most complex yet beautifully efficient suburban railway system on earth. Don’t try and understand it, stations have multiple sub stations, different train operators and even multiple, completely differently named stations in the same place. Just appreciate that the reality is, that wherever you in Tokyo you are probably never more than 10 minutes away from some train that will take you anywhere else in the city.
The single first thing anyone coming to not just Tokyo, but Japan should do is download the Hyperdia app and google maps. Wherever you are google maps will tell you and show you your nearest train station. Hyperdia will tell you the train, line, track number and price of how to get to where you next want to go. It is easily Japan’s must have app.
Tokyo is an expensive place to be and accommodation will cost upwards of $60 per night for a shoe box sized room. Food ranges from about $5 per meal at the lower end but averages about $12 for a decent munch in a local joint without drinks. For a beer factor in around $5 in a restaurant, or $2 from a seven eleven. Will all these outgoings Tokyo is a budget destroyer and so it makes sense to try and save money where possible.
First of all, if you want temples you should head to Kyoto. If you want gorgeous scenery go to the Japanese Alps. If you want a combination of culture, technology, neon lights, anime, forests, boutique stores, sky scrapers and a peek into the future, all in the confines of one city. Tokyo is your place.
This guide is not comprehensive, nor is it intended to give you the best of Tokyo. It is written purely for those short on time but keen for the best mix of Tokyo getting a feel of what the city has to offer whilst keeping their wallets firmly closed.
Shibuya (Pedestrian scramble, Dogenzaka, Hachiko)
Harajuku (Cat street, Takeshita-dori,
Shinjuku (Tokyo government metropolitan offices, Shinjuku chuo-koen)
Most of the itinerary is walked, but if you are feeling pooped just hop on the metro/railway to the next point.
Starting point for the day is Shibuya station on the Yamanote line. Take the Hachiko exit and grab a snap at the statue of Hachiko, history’s loyalist dog. The remarkable story is that Hachiko would accompany his master to the railway station each day and then wait for his return. One day his owner didn’t return having died at the office that day. Hachiko waited 9 years for the return of his master before dying himself.
Right opposite the station and the exit you just left is Tokyo’s most famous landmark and, if you are unsure of where to look, spot the multiple selfie sticks, if you are still unsure, look for the masses of people all waiting to cross the worlds most photographed zebra crossing.
From the crossing mooch around Shibuya a little, but try and head in the direction of Harajuku which is about a kilometer or so away. There are shops and restaurants to suit all tastes.
Heading into Harajuku you will come to ‘Cat Street’ which has no cats there at all. I sat here with my son and drank some free energy drink handed out to us and we couldn’t figure out why it was given such a pointless name. It does however have a large number of independent, more upmarket, boutique style shops selling handicrafts, clothes and maybe cats.
A stone’s throw way is the famous thrift/cosplay/teen magnet of Takeshita-dori. This is where Japanese teens come to be seen. To me it looked like a load of school girls, or adults dressed as school girls with the occasional Mario and Luigi walking by. This is thrift central and you can expect to buy gems such as second hand New Balance for twice their original price and stickers at $5 a pop. It is absolutely worth the visit and for me, epitomized Japanese youth culture.
Walking up Takeshita-dori and past all the selfie takers at the top you will see Harajuku station. With the station to your right, walk about 50m and see Yoyogi Park and the imposing wooden entrance. Follow the masses to Tokyo’s feeble attempt at taking on Kyoto and TripAdvisor’s number one Tokyo attraction – Meiji-Jingu. If you are on a Tokyo stopover you will love this place, if you have come off the back of a trip in central/western Japan you probably won’t. It is lovely, no doubt about it, and made even more impressive after the short walk through the forest past gorgeous and intricate bonsai gardens and chrysanthemums. Come expecting Japans best shrine and you’ll be disappointed, but arrive looking to dip your toe into a puddle of culture and you’ll be fine.
If you walk through the shrine and continue the direction at which you have been walking thus far, you will go back into the forest and eventually hit a main road surrounded by skyscrapers. Walk as far as the seven eleven and then cross over the dual carriageway. Keep walking in that direction and in about 500m you will arrive at Tokyo’s government metropolitan offices. You have to drop down a level, but enter either the north or south building. There will be a queue for the elevator which moves quickly and before you know it you’ll be on the 45th floor looking out as far (hopefully) as Mt Fuji. Entrance is completely free, but there are shops and a restaurant you can visit. If you are heading for food, try going after dark, it commands the best views of the floor and will be stunning at night.
Next stop on the walk is Shinjuku chuo koen, a leafy green park just down the road. The park is there to be explored, there was a festival when we were there. When you are bored hop on the metro bound for Iwomotocho which also shares a station with Akihabara, the beating heart of teenage Japan.
Akihabara is the neon stripped buildings teeming with teenagers and Japanese men seeking out electrical bargains. At night it really comes to life as teenagers walk around dressed as their favourite Anime character and pimped out motorcycles race through the streets. If you like manga, anime, comics or just browsing electrical deals such as Playstation 4’s that are twice the price of the UK then this is your place. I’m sure there are bargains to be had, but everything I saw was unjustifiably expensive, except the food, here eats are very cheap and $5 will fill you up easily.
This is where the day ends (if you like), and you will have hit up a perfect, albeit tiny combination of what Tokyo offers, for free.
A couple of tips:
Not all ATM’s accept international cards, some that do have a minimum withdrawal of 10,000 yen ($100). I found the best were the ATM’s in the seven eleven stores which have no fees and allow you to withdraw what you want.
Most stores don’t accept visa or MasterCard.
All of Tokyo’s railway/subway stations have lockers, look out for ‘coin lockers’, prices are always the same, 300/400/500/700 yen depending on locker size.
If you have a JR pass, use the Hyperdia app and select JR tickets. This will find you the cheapest combined route.
Finally, Tokyo is a city you can really fall in love with and has a million personalities. Don’t take yourself too seriously and relax, you are in one of the most amazing cities in the world.